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Reflections on Scouting, Part I

For as long as I've been around there has existed a controversy over whether bookselling should be considered a trade or a profession. Well here is the answer and like all great truths it is succinct. Bookselling is a trade: Bookscouting is a profession.
Published on 29 March 2010

By David Mason

A few years ago I had a visit from Justin Schiller at my store and that visit initiated a lengthy period of meditation on an aspect of bookselling which, while largely unknown or of no interest to the public, is so central to bookselling that dealers constantly dwell on it. For anyone who doesn’t know who Justin Schiller is I will briefly explain. Justine Schiller is generally acknowledged to be the greatest authority on children’s books in the book trade. Although he is only in his fifties he has been a bookseller for longer than many other people’s entire career. There are stories of Justin issuing mimeograph lists of books for sale from his bedroom in his parents’ home in his early teens and there is a famous photograph of him in the front of the auction catalogue of his first great L. Frank Baum collection, auctioned in 1978, where he appears to be about 12 years old. That photograph of Justin shows him with braces on his teeth but also wearing a warm toothy smile. Now Justin wears three piece tweed suits and is exhibiting signs of portliness (aren’t we all) but the toothy smile remains the same. But don’t make the mistake of thinking there isn’t a very determined mind behind that smile.

Not being much of a traveler anymore and seldom participating in foreign bookfairs, I don’t see many of the dealers of whom I once saw a lot. Justin I hadn’t seen in probably ten years and I expected from various reports I had heard over that time, the sort of visit one gets from a highly successful and very specialized bookseller. This is more or less how it works. Dealer enters, passes a few minutes with the amenities and catching up on old mutual friends, praises your store, spends a few minutes, (in this case) in the children’s section, asks if anything not readily visible might pertain to him. And then after a purchase, hopefully – even a token courtesy purchase is usually welcomed by both parties in this trade ritual – the visiting dealer departs. But on this occasion this standard ritual did not occur. Justin instead started in the children’s book area but then proceeded to look at every other subject section in my rather large stock. After a couple of hours he brought a foot high stack of books to my desk for the totting up.

On examination everything became clear. When adding up the total of a dealer’s choices the owner always takes mental note of another dealer’s purchases, both out of curiosity and, if he is smart, as a learning device. This is the time when many a dealer gets that sinking feeling which occurs when he suddenly realizes that he has missed the significance of a book and realizes that a sleeper – an undervalued book – has once again slipped through to someone with more knowledge. Or, in my view, more often because of a more lively imagination on the part of the purchaser. In this case every book in Justin’s pile, extracted from every part of my store, the religious, science, art, literature, travel, even mysteries, among other sections, instantly told me why he was buying them. Every single one had some connection to the world of children. It was a compelling demonstration of the consummate pro in action.

And so, after the goodbyes, Justin left, leaving me musing on how seldom these days one goes through that practiced ritual with one’s colleagues. And in the ensuing days I found myself musing more and more on the significance of this experience. For what Justin was doing was not simply buying a few books from another bookstore, he was scouting, the central preoccupation of bookselling to many dealers – including me – the part most like a game, where dealers hone their skills and test their knowledge and imagination against their colleagues, the prize being profit, a book found worth more than the seller realizes – sometimes a significant profit. And like professional gamblers and sports figures, while the profit is not negligible in import, the real significance is the feeling of winning. A professional athlete may earn or win millions, but the core of his triumph is in the winning, the feeling of being the best. Book scouting is no different.

So unlike some successful booksellers, who expect to be shown the best books in a bookstore, Justin Schiller hadn’t lost either his scouting skills or his love of searching out good books himself. His visit renewed my respect for his justly acknowledged depth of learning and more important it led to the ongoing philosophical meditation which has resulted in this essay.

I have been scribbling notes and meditations ever since, another attempt to make sense of my now lengthy time in the trade.

I officially started in the book trade in 1967 when I consciously decided to be a used bookseller and began buying books for the store I intended to open. A couple of months later I began an apprenticeship at Joseph Patrick Books while I continued to build up my stock and issue catalogues. But I now see that my scouting career really began one afternoon, probably in 1946 or 1947, when two pals and I were walking through the bush adjoining the Rosedale Golf Course, the prime spot for kids in North Toronto in winter for skiing and tobogganing, and in summer for exploration and adventure. On that late summer day my friends and I were stumbling through shrubbery when I suddenly came across a lost golf ball lying at my feet, shiny and white, perfect, glowing up from its hollow, no less beautiful than a diamond would have seemed to an adult. I was awed, then excited. If there was one, there must be more. Our aimless wandering now focused on the search for more of these treasures. We spent the rest of the day searching. I quickly learned the trick of not looking directly, but flicking my eyes over the surface of the rough, glancing from the side of the eye, which allowed that eye to register flashes of white on the brain causing movement to cease while each flash was investigated. Looking without looking, a skill which, when cultivated later, was essential to scouting books. Often the white flash would be nothing more than a discarded scrap of paper or an empty cigarette box, but by the time increasing darkness warned us we were in for trouble at home and we desisted, I had five shining white golf balls. My friends had not a single one between them. I was a scout; I had the eye. I had the gift. A shy, timid kid with not much self-confidence, I had found something I was better at than my companions, perhaps the first such thing. Selling the golf balls later in the caddy shack, my first monetary rewards for scouting, also led to me taking up caddying, which I did until I was around 14 and discovered the pool hall. But during all those years I continued to scout and sell golf balls. A scout was born.

While a good part of the excitement in finding a significant book is the eventual profit, the imaginative scout comes to realize that he has a higher purpose; he is rescuing from obscurity something which has historical or aesthetic value to society as a whole. And having rescued it his next social function is to then place it somewhere where its contribution to the record of civilization will be understood. He is serving the future by saving the past, a noble activity.

There are two basic, but quite different categories of scouts. The first group – in which I include myself – is the one I am most concerned with here. It constitutes either booksellers or serious and very knowledgeable scouts who are often affiliated with a single bookseller in some sort of exclusive, or even partnership arrangement.
The second category of scout is much more common than the dealer / scout and will be found in every major city which contains used and rare bookshops. Most cities have several of these guys trolling daily, who deal in whatever they can turn over for a profit. They usually have a hand to mouth existence, buying in the morning and needing to sell in the afternoon. They are from a variety of backgrounds, although usually they are people who fit in to conventional society even less than most of the dealers they deal with. Often – but not always – bachelors living in weekly rented rooms, they have discovered scouting through scrounging at antique flea markets, the Sally Ann, garage sales, church sales, anywhere, in fact, where a book could be found. Most do not last more then a few years – some because they never learn anything, or because they don’t have the eye, or even an approximation of that essential skill, but mostly because they often alienate the dealers they depend on as their only customers. This sort of scout, even if they last, can be counted on to die broke, often with a room jammed with the detritus of their mistakes.

They are often eccentric and they are almost invariably real characters. They buy as cheaply as they can, a necessity when you don’t know much and since they depend on the goodwill of their dealer customers they generally settle on a few different dealers whom they count on to buy their finds. Some never learn anything even though most work very hard. It’s not easy to start at 7am, hit the Crips and the Sally Ann, read newspaper ads, flyers for church sales, garage sale ads and posters. And run around a huge city trying to find a decent book especially when most of them don’t really know what a decent book is. And many of them cannot even afford to own a car. But the usual reason for their downfall is that their ignorance, and their need to sell quickly, means they are at the mercy of those they sell to. This, in my experience, often causes them to become a bit paranoid, which is a progressive disease, the results of which are too often resentment and anger.

Time after time I have heard scouts lament that such and such a dealer has cheated them, paying little or nothing for what they later came to believe was a valuable book. These accusations usually stem directly from their ignorance and it contradicts what I think smart dealers always do in their dealings with scouts, treat them fairly. Many dealers – and I am one of them – tend to overpay scouts, or to buy things they don’t really want, both practices an attempt to encourage the scout to bring you more.

For the good general scout, it is a balancing act. They need to take some of their better finds to all their main dealer customers so that the dealer will not assume that all the best books are going to his competitor (It is obvious here that dealers suffer the same paranoid view that the scout carries, only in reverse – they also have to use the balancing act.)

The better scouts are quite different. They will generally be as knowledgeable as any dealer, indeed sometimes they are ex-dealers, guys who got sick of the responsibility of running a store and returned to their first love.

In forty years of observing the booktrade I have come to believe that deep in his secret heart of hearts every bookseller who runs a shop believes that he is one of the great scouts just taking a short break. On rainy days in a shop empty of customers and between raising the prices of books to keep his spirits up, his private fantasies are of the day when he will throw up all this boring, respectable crap and revert to his original vision of himself as a fearless scout pillaging the shops of his innocent and ignorant colleagues, exiting in triumph with their unrecognized treasures. No overhead except small rooms somewhere and maybe a car or van – often his hotel for the night – to transport the booty. In reality, the pressures of overhead and responsibility weigh him down more each day and each day his fantasy becomes more delusion, his escape less likely. Just as marriage, mortgage and children capture the young, narrowing their focus, so does success capture an older man with the bigger and more impressive premises, more staff to handle, the increased volume and extended hours to help absorb the escalating costs, and scouting, the freedom and excitement of the chase, is relegated to an occasional indulgence when responsibilities allow.

But no real bookman ever gives up scouting.

The better scouts are trained to see significance where others see only garbage. One night stumbling along Queen Street half-pissed, my drinking companion, another bookseller, stopped to examine some boxes of garbage outside a building we knew was inhabited by a group which was one of the warring factions of the Communist Party of Canada. I was too lazy to stop, continuing on to our destination – a pub of course. But I had second thoughts when my colleague came in soon after with an entire carton he had found in the garbage, which was full of pamphlets in Russian. We started to examine them. I quickly came across an imprint (an imprint denotes the place a book is published, in either a city or a country) which I recognized, which automatically marked the item as Canadiana. Although I knew no Russian I had had occasion earlier to research other such pamphlets so I knew that the city name in the Cyrillic alphabet was the Russian version for Winnipeg, Manitoba. Winnipeg had been the final immigration stop of a fairly large contingent of European Jews and Eastern European immigrants generally, in the early part of the 20th century. In fact a surprisingly large percentage of the major social reformers and even many current public figures in Canada came from that Jewish community's offspring. One of my favourite ironies in being a Canadian is knowing that so many of our most important politicians and social activists, business successes and cultural figures have been either United Church ministers or the offspring of European Jews. And sure enough, a couple of pamphlets later I spied one which had the Russian version for Toronto. "I'll give you $50 right now for the whole box, sight unseen," I said. "Sold," replied my drunken colleague, and then had fun for the rest of the evening informing our drinking companions of his cleverness in seeing the possibilities in garbage. He bought us all beer for the rest of the evening, announcing loudly every time he ordered another round to "Drink up. The commies are paying. There’s a lot more where that came from." We spent the rest of a raucous evening praising “the commies” for providing half the pub with an evening’s drunkenness. And, of course, my friend blew the whole $50. Somehow I got my drunken self and my box of pamphlets home safely.

The next day, sober, I examined my carton and found, as I had hoped, quite a few more Canadian imprints. I sold several, all in Russian, right away for $300-400 and eventually realized a fair bit of profit from the rest of the box. But more important, I learned a serious truth, namely that scouts can’t be snobs. I also made it up to my colleague by buying him quite a lot of beer over the next months. “Thank the commies”, I would say when he thanked me for another free round.

When I started out, as ignorant as any other beginning scout, the obligatory first stop every morning at 8:15 was the tiny bookshop run by the Crippled Civilians on Jarvis Street, familiarly known to the regulars as “The Crips”, but now renamed more politically correctly Goodwill Services. It adjoined their large central headquarters which, like the Sally Ann, solicited free donations of almost anything. In fact most of us scouts and booksellers who frequented it, regularly furnished our homes and dressed ourselves in the cast-offs of people who had died, or just moved.

The tiny bookshop opened at 8:30 but arrival at 8:15 assured being close to the head of the line where one attempted to guess the prices of the new titles in the display windows and hoped the scouts ahead of them in line were ignorant of these titles. The first in would usually point at the four or five decent newly displayed books in the window making a pile which he would then sort through at his leisure, checking price and condition before putting the desirable ones in his pile to buy, and leaving his rejections for his fellow scouts.

Those not close enough to the head of the line when the door opened would dash to the special sections, usually the Canadian section, which most often would contain the sleepers. For this, of course, was what we all sought – the sleeper. The pricing system was as follows: Fiction 15 cents a book or 10 books for a dollar. This meant that if one found five or more fiction titles it was cheaper and certainly better to fill out the number to ten since between six or seven meant all the rest were free. This would be the first opportunity I had to learn how booksellers regularly out-fox themselves into buying unsaleable books by thinking they are saving money, when they are really just loading themselves down with useless crap that no one will ever want and they must give expensive shelf space to, probably forever.

Like everyone else who has read way too many books, I have many useless quotations culled from these thousands of books which pop unsolicited into my mind on almost any pretext. The one that fits here is from William S. Burroughs and I find it always pertinent. It goes, “Hustlers of the world, there’s one mark you cannot beat: the mark inside.”

A pointless aside: one book I had read and really liked was “The Ides of March” by Thornton Wilder. One day I found one clearly marked “First Edition” on the verso of the title. It was in a fine dustwrapper, and priced 10 cents. A week later I found another. And then another, and another, one almost every week. It took about 6 months for me to catch on that if an ignorant neophyte like me could buy a dozen copies of a first edition in fine condition, for 10 cents each, in one thrift store, in one city – there must be something wrong. And there was. In fact there were two things wrong. First, they weren’t first editions, they were the Book-of-the-Month Club issue, in spite of the printed notice of “First Edition” (it took me ten years to acquire the true first edition, which in my experience is scarcer than the special limited signed edition, also issued at publication.)

Second, and more significant, nobody wanted that book anyway. No one, it seemed, except me, thought it was a great book. I probably still have ten of those dozen books somewhere forty years later and there is a very important lesson here. What value does anything have if no one wants it? One of the first book jokes I can remember hearing went like this: A book scout offers a book to a dealer, naming his price. The dealer hesitates, the scout gets nervous. After all, this is his dinner at stake, maybe his hotel room for the night too. “That’s a very rare book you know”, he says anxiously to the dealer. (Just in case the dealer doesn’t realize this.) “Yes, I know”, says the dealer. “It certainly is. Almost as rare as customers for it.” There are several lessons here.

Other books at this Crips store were priced 35 cents, or 50 cents, 75 cents or $1, and if really desirable up to $2, $3, or $5. The rarely asked $10 meant a really good book, or one thought to be so by Mr. Fraser, the pricer and head bookman, and a man not to be tampered with. He ran the place like a fiefdom and woe to the one who tried anything shifty which, of course, many did. But seldom twice, because Mr. Fraser would explode at any perceived insult, or any infringement on his unwritten code, and any behaviour which he considered uncivilized was grounds for instant and very loudly conducted banishment. In other words, like a teacher with a lot of unruly schoolboys. Mr. Fraser (I never knew his first name nor would I have ever used it if I had known) was in fact just that, a retired school teacher. He was also a bit of a snob. I think he didn't want anyone to think he was the usual type of Crips employee. And he wasn't. He was there because he was blind, or at least almost blind. He had a degenerative ocular disease which had resulted in his being blind in one eye and with only five percent vision in the other eye. So he could make out a face if it was very close, but mostly he recognized his regulars by their voices. He priced books by the same method putting his one decent eye about an inch from the title page to ascertain what he was confronting. Not too many years later even that eye deteriorated so badly that management supplied him with a helper, usually a not-too-swift young man whose sole task was to bring a box of books to Mr. Fraser's desk, then to read him titles one by one, then hand them to him for pricing. Mr. Fraser had a distinctive writing style which was instantly recognizable by everyone who frequented that shop and I still occasionally open a book to find his price on the endpaper. This always causes a sensation of acute nostalgia.

The Sally Ann and St. Vincent de Paul also had shops but St. Vincent seldom got anything one would want and the Sally Ann was generally very poor because, as was widely known, the fix was in. That is, bribery prevailed. Every so often someone would complain loudly and an investigation ensued with the corrupted manager being fired. Then books would magically appear untouched, sometimes for as long as two to three weeks, until the newly appointed manager, also succumbed to the blandishments of bribery. Then -- no more good books. We all thought we knew who was guilty of the bribing, a local bookseller, but we never had any hard evidence. Curiously, although we were all officially incensed that this dealer was bribing the manager, I always felt that what really bothered the rest of us was that we didn’t actually know how to go about bribing someone. Our friend, of European origins, had centuries of custom to fall back on but the rest of us probably were too naive to even know how to attempt such a corrupt practice.

One day a woman, a friend of mine who had started scouting for an antique business she planned to open, saw that the door to the private back room was open and a man who she knew worked for a local bookseller was rummaging through books. Naturally, she assumed she could too, so in she went, only to be summarily kicked out by the Sally Ann employee. Her sense of justice sorely offended, she went right to the top with her complaint which resulted in the manager being fired, and we enjoyed another short period of economic democracy. But more important, when she told me who the rummager was, a long-time employee of a certain local dealer, we finally had irrefutable evidence as to which dealer was bribing the book manager. In those days the Toronto dealers socialized a lot with each other and at a bookseller’s party soon after I slyly positioned myself in a group which contained the briber (who was, and still is, a dear friend of mine, but the opportunity to place a barb in front of a receptive audience outweighs that.) I waited for a lull, and suddenly interjected, "Hey guys, you'll never guess. We finally have definite proof who's been bribing people at the Sally Ann all these years." I had everybody's attention. We had all suspected this dealer for many years and his innate cunning showed itself again, as he attempted to divert attention by piping up instantly. "Really? Who is it? Tell us?” It couldn’t have been more perfect. Without a pause I struck. I looked him in the eye. "You, that's who." The roar of laughter from the assembled dealers drowned out even my friend's embarrassed spluttering. Finally, even he sheepishly joined the laughter, but he never did respond to the accusation. Nor, come to think of it, was he embarrassed enough to stop the bribery which soon recommenced.

But back to Mr. Fraser. I was always very polite with Mr. Fraser and I never presumed to ask for any considerations. There was an ugly, fat cat in the shop, Mr. Fraser’s special favourite. It was horribly spoiled and cranky. It slept wherever it cared to, almost always, it seemed, stretched out over books you wanted to look at, and if you attempted to move it you could get clawed or badly bitten. Even worse if you riled the cat enough he might just piss on the books to teach you a lesson, ruining some pretty good books over the years. The whole place stunk of cat urine but it would be a fatal error if you had the temerity to complain to Mr. Fraser about the cat’s behaviour. Out you would go, banned for life. I saw this a few times when people unaware of Mr. Fraser’s affection for the cat spoke up about the stink. As I said, I was always very polite to Mr. Fraser. Of course I had a serious edge because I worked for Gerry Sherlock, whom everybody liked and respected. Gerry was then the major Canadiana specialist in the country and Mr. Fraser acted like the three of us were the only cultured people to be found in that cesspool of hustlers and losers. Sometimes Mr. Fraser would break his own rules for dealers he liked and hold something for them. One day another scout saw Mr. Fraser bring out a couple of books, saying to me “Mr. Mason I put these aside thinking you might like them.” When he did that I always thanked him profusely and bought them, whatever they were, and whatever the price because I didn’t want to discourage him from repeating such gestures. However I heard later, that this unwise scout, seeing this, made the fatal error of asking Mr. Fraser the next day to hold books in a certain area for him. That was the last time we saw him in there. Sometimes a banned scout would attempt to infiltrate himself back in by using the ploy of not speaking, counting on Mr. Fraser’s blindness to protect him. But, someone would eventually call him by name or he would forget and say something and Mr. Fraser would recognize him by his voice, and recognized, he would suffer a second and even more humiliating ejection.

One day Mr. Fraser brought out a book, offering it to me by saying, “Mr. Mason I’ve put a huge price on this because it is the first edition of a Canadian classic and it’s in mint condition.” Even with his bad sight he could see that it was in very fine condition. It was William Kirby’s “The Golden Dog”, dated 1877, which indeed is a Canadian classic, and it was in literally new condition, (proper dealers never use the term “mint condition”, we leave that for the coin dealers.) But it was not the first edition, although the date was right. I could tell this instantly, because on looking at the title page I found a long written tirade, signed by William Kirby, bitterly complaining that this was a piracy stolen by those despicable thieves who were intent on seeing him in the poorhouse. Mr. Fraser had not seen the inscription, nor the signature, and I thought it better not to tell him about it, not wanting to hurt a blind man’s feelings, especially one doing me a favour. He had priced it at ten dollars, a rare price in the Crips, but acceptable, given that I very quickly sold it for $500.00. For many years afterwards I boasted about buying a great sleeper from a blind man. “How disgusting”, the looks on the faces of my colleagues seemed to say, “stealing from a blind man.” But I knew better, I was aware those looks were actually manifestations of envy, the bitter chagrin of the loser. (The reason this was scouting, not stealing, was because of another old protocol of the trade; a priced book is fair game.)

The first edition of “The Golden Dog” was published in New York and Montreal in 1877. It was printed in Rouses’ Point, NY, just across the border, a ploy by the publisher to protect Kirby by securing a U.S. copyright, but which backfired, because Lovell, the publisher, after printing in the States neglected to register it for U.S. copyright. And then, because it was published first in the U.S., he also lost Canadian copyright protection as well, leaving Kirby with no legal rights at all. Many editions were issued for years, both pirated and legal ones, and it continues to be reprinted, but I have never seen any copy of any of those many editions, signed by Kirby. The whole story is fascinating and it can be found in the bibliographical essay published by Dr. Elizabeth Brady in the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, #15 for 1976 ( Toronto 1977). In fact I sold that copy to Elizabeth Brady’s then husband, as a gift for her, and as her essay shows it is part of her important Kirby collection which is now at Queen’s University.

I will say little about the scout as collector because a scout collecting is much the same as a collector collecting although his experiences as a dealer or scout will have taught him a few of the necessary lessons perhaps a bit earlier and perhaps a bit more forcefully because of his experiences in bookstores.

I will, however, reiterate what I concluded many years ago and state at every opportunity – my belief that one can’t really excel at any function which relates to books unless one is a collector and frequents used bookshops. That is, you can’t be a good librarian, a good archivist, or even a good academic if you have no experience amassing a collection on your own for your personal use, by frequenting bookshops. This said, it follows that I also believe neither can one be a good bookseller if one doesn’t collect. This view would be widely disputed in the trade. Indeed I would guess that a very high number of dealers would disagree.

I think many – maybe half – of dealers would claim, that a dealer who collects causes problems with clients, especially a conflict of interest, and that it is generally not proper for someone who is supposedly trying to make a living. This view is often as vehemently held as my contention that the opposite is true.

Having considered all the arguments against the dealer/scout as collector I remain adamant: A dealer who does not collect cannot experience the emotional passion which fuels all collecting, thereby omitting from the equation its very essence. And with that lack of perspective he loses the ability to emotionally connect with his clients – and for that matter, even with the books. We have all experienced the Doctor who is so accustomed to his own omnipotence that he has forgotten that he is also a human being and becomes so emotionally distanced from the suffering and fears of his patients as to get the reputation as “very good perhaps, but cold”.

When one considers the collector as a scout it is, of course, necessary to drop a major part of the motivation which we ascribed to the dealer / scout – namely the profit motive.

True collectors do not collect with profit in mind. In my experience that doesn’t seem to be even a long term concern with most collectors. Sometimes, in chatting with a collector about their collection, the collector might mention some horrendous price they have paid for a single item, but I can’t really remember ever hearing one speculate what their outlay for a fairly big long term collection may have cost them, even in general terms. And it is only with collectors who are getting quite elderly that one even has conversations about the eventual disposition of their collection.

Part II

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